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Benchmarking the benefits of mob grazing for biodiversity

New KTIF-funded project will benchmark the benefits of regenerative grazing

A Soil Association Scotland field lab researching the benefits of a regenerative grazing method has been awarded £57k by Scottish Government’s Knowledge, Transfer and Innovation (KTIF) fund to expand its work.

The new ‘Farming for Biodiversity’ project will use the funds to benchmark and demonstrate the benefits of regenerative grazing to other farmers. Scottish Farming and Wildlife Advisers’ Group (SCOTFWAG) will provide expert input into the development of a benchmarking framework. The project will be driven by Soil Association Scotland’s mob grazing field lab group, which has progressed to an Operational Group. An Operational Group is linked to other groups across Europe to develop innovative ideas in European agriculture, and is registered with the agricultural European Innovation Partnership (EIP-AGRI).

Senior Farming Programmes Manager at Soil Association Scotland, Colleen McCulloch, said: “Soil Association Scotland’s Farming for Biodiversity project will allow us to develop a framework to benchmark the ways grazing livestock can build natural capital as well as produce nutritious food. The project builds on the work of our mob grazing field lab, where farmers have found that rotational grazing with very long periods of grass recovery and regular shifting of livestock is improving soil health. This means more, and more diverse, bugs, birds, and plants in the field; improved business resilience; and could even mean more carbon in the soil.

“This new, KTIF-funded Operational Group will work together to develop a measuring framework that can then be used by other farmers interested in regenerative farming principles. As we look forward to a green recovery, being able to produce food sustainably could not be more crucial.”

Mob grazing is short duration, high density grazing with a longer than usual grass recovery period. Cattle are frequently moved between sites and grass is left to recover for between 40 and 100 days. Mob grazing systems can create huge savings on food, fuel and labour. Farmers practising mob grazing say they have seen huge improvements in soil health and cattle health, as well as lower costs.

The Soil Association Scotland field lab brought together a group of 16 farmers and crofters who have been exploring the potential of mob grazing to build soil carbon, improve animal health and performance, reduce the costs of straw and winter feed, and increase biodiversity. It has now become the Mob Grazing Operational Group as part of the KTIF-funded project.

Sam Parsons, Estate Manager at the 2,000-hectare Balcaskie estate in Fife, is one of the members of the group. He says mob grazing has extended the grazing season at Balcaskie, saving £17,000 already, and will allow the farm to outwinter 300 cows this year. He says: “This year we’re mob grazing all of our cows. We’ve got three groups with 100 cows in each, plus a fourth group of 200 young. It’s been a strange year for grass growth after a very wet winter and then a dry spring, but where we were mob grazing the rest period was obvious, which encouraged us to put everything into mobs. Where we grazed it, the grass came back quickly. Where we overgrazed it or set stocked, we really struggled. It’s enabled us to store grass ahead of us now which should extend our grazing season by a month if not longer. We outwintered 87 cows last year, which saved us £17,000, and this year we’re going to outwinter 300.

“I think the biggest thing for me was that this was a huge change from the conventional farming system I grew up on, and when you’re dealing with change it’s very difficult to do that on your own. It’s hard to find good advice, and the field lab brought people experimenting with similar things.”

James and Nikki Yoxall are new entrants to farming. They have a small herd of Shetland cattle on a 7.2-hectare farm in Aberdeenshire. They joined the mob grazing field lab in 2019, as they began mob grazing their cattle. Combining mob grazing and agroforestry allowed them to successfully outwinter their cattle, grazing the herd through the trees. They say the support of the mob grazing group has been invaluable. James says, “We all want to see better soil health for wildlife and better wellbeing for people. It’s that thinking that makes the group such a positive thing to be a part of.”

The Farming for Biodiversity project will run until March 2021 and will publish a benchmarking framework designed by farmers.

Read more about the Mob Grazing Field Lab